This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 5, 1995
Film Review: Johnny Mnemonic
Directed by Robert Longo
Casting Keanu Reeves as a blank slate seems almost too perfect. Even when Reeves is playing characters in full possession of their faculties, there is always something oddly vacant about his delivery, as if his words were being filtered through a kind of artificial intelligence. In the title role of Johnny Mnemonic, Reeves has a good excuse for his virtual acting. He plays a cyberspace courier, an information smuggler with a "wet wired" brain implant for transporting other people's data. Johnny dumped his own childhood memories some time ago to create more storage space for his corporate clients. Now, he wants to buy those memories back, but the price is high, and he has to do one last run to pay for them. Scientists defecting from a corporate giant called Pharmakom hire him to deliver a 360-gigabyte payload of coded data - more than his brain can safely handle - and he does not even know what it contains.
This is a movie with a lot of premise. It takes place in the second decade of the 21st century. Corporations rule the world with the help of the Yakuza crime syndicate, while info-wars rage and guerrillas called LoTeks hack the system. And a fatal plague called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome wreaks general havoc. Adapted by William GIBSON from his own 1981 short story, Johnny Mnemonic turns his vision of techno-decadence into sets, costumes and special effects. There are some neat tricks, including a glowing mono-filament whip that slices people like sushi. And the animated computer-graphic flights through cyberspace are spectacular. Most of Johnny Mnemonic, however, takes place not in cyberspace, but in a boneyard of movie clichés, a familiar world of chases, fights and explosions.
Novice director Robert Longo seems out of his depth in shooting and cutting an action movie. And despite his credentials as an artist his art-directed simulation of urban dystopia pales next to precedents set by Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985). The sets look like sets. The dramatic tone, meanwhile, is woefully inconsistent. For rap singer Ice-T - who plays J-Bone, the righteous leader of the LoTek info-pirates - the film could be a ghetto drama called Hackers in the Hood. Dolph Lundgren's over-the-top villain, a fanatical preacher armed with a stiletto crucifix, appears to be auditioning for a bad Ken Russell movie. German actress Barbara Sukowa (the director's wife), who plays a cyber-ghost, flickers in and out like an art-house phantom. Meanwhile, as a microchip 007, Reeves plays it absurdly straight. And as Johnny's samurai bodyguard, Dina Meyer puts on a brave face for an actress stuck on a feature-length date with the world's most unresponsive romantic lead.
Stilted performances often push the movie into unintentional self-parody. Somewhere in the interface between Gibson's hot-wired imagination and the movie's cartoonish chaos, his ideas got garbled. The translation is too literal. Johnny Mnemonic's true demographic may lie among viewers unable to spell or understand its title. Cyberpunk has given birth to cybershlock.
Maclean's June 5, 1995